By: Felicia LaLomia
Coronavirus restrictions have begun to bleed into the warmer days, forcing summer holiday festivities and traditional family gatherings to be canceled—this, of course, includes our beloved Feast Day celebrations.
Calling off the feasts
The oldest feast of its kind, the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Feast — set to take place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — will not be held this year. Normally in July, this gathering of Italian Americans from all over the Northeast and beyond features an amazing feat: the lifting of the Giglio, where 130 men hoist up a magnificent, 80-foot statue. In a Facebook post, the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Rev. Monsignor Jamie J. Gigantiello, wrote that the cancellation is “a financial burden we cannot stand to bear.” The church, which relies heavily on proceeds from the festival to fund the Parish year-round, is now asking for patrons to donate what they can.
“So, in sharing this news, I also ask for your help,” Gigantiello wrote. “You have always been there for this Parish and this Feast.” The last time the feast was cancelled was during World War II.
Organizers of the larger-than-life San Gennaro Feast on Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan are holding out hope that the event will launch as planned on Sept. 17.
The Fisherman’s Feast in Boston, originally scheduled for mid-August, has also been canceled due to the pandemic. “It will be difficult to imagine a summer in the North End without our festivals and traditions,” a statement on their website read. “But now is a time that we must look to the Madonna and all the patron Saints to help us all get through these troubled times.” A scroll through the events page on Northendboston.com, a website dedicated to the Little Italy of Boston, has most of their Italian American feast day events canceled through September.
The Santa Lucia festival in Omaha, Neb. has been put on hold. The celebration was planned for June 4-7 . “We want to be able to share Saint Lucy and our Italian heritage in a healthier and safer environment, where we can all enjoy the celebration,” a statement on their website read. This would have been their 96th year.
Other festivals have moved their date to a later time. The Kansas City chapter of UNICO hosts an annual Festa Italiana each year in July. They have decided to postpone until further notice. Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park, IL said their mid-July celebration will have a different format, depending on the restrictions in place at that time.
Feast day origins
When waves of Italian immigrants made their way to the U.S. looking for a better life, they brought with them many of the traditions from the towns or regions they lived in. One of the strongest was the celebration of each saint’s feast day.
At its heart, these festivals celebrate the life and work of our most cherished saints (think Saint Peter, patron saint of fishermen, celebrated in fishing communities like Glouchester, Mass). It also was a way for newly immigrated Italian Americans to gather and protect their identity during a period of intense racism.
But over the decades, these celebrations have grown into something more, bringing a diverse group of people together to pray, eat and enjoy the music, recipes and traditions that define our culture.
With many of these summer feast day festivals canceled or postponed, traditions are threatened. Being Italian American means family and culture. It means gathering around a common table, no matter how large it is, and celebrating holidays and feasts through food and company. Italian American feast days are the pinnacle of that. They celebrate heritage, bring forth the best Italian food, explore old traditions and continue on the legacy of these saints and Italian ways of life.
So with the threats of oronavirus, doing these inherently Italian American things has been nearly impossible, and the cancellation of the feasts has only made it worse. Yet, like so many times in the past, Italian Americans have found a way to persevere and make it happen, even if it doesn’t look exactly the same.
Many of the organizers of these feast day events are finding ways to reach their Italian American community without physical contact. Whether it’s by live streaming portions of the celebration, putting the mass service up on Facebook Live for all to view, or encouraging previous festival goers to take part in festivities at home through traditional food.
Members of the Society of Our Lady of Sacro Monte of Novi Velia in New Jersey live streamed their entire feast celebration weekend on May 14 to May 17 on Facebook—two Novenas on Thursday and Friday, a vigil Mass on Saturday and a festival mass on Sunday with a virtual celebratory gathering right after.
And even though the feast day season of 2020 won’t look like it has over the past century, with hope and prayer, the 2021 season will return with vibrant Italian celebrations in person.
In these uncertain times, ISDA is working on a special project for this year’s Italian American feast season, so stay tuned!